Monthly Archives: October 2016

A Conversation with Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky is an internationally renowned thought leader and the author of many influential books on education. He coined the term “digital natives” in a germinal article published in 2001.

His most recent book, Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of 21st-century Kids, has just been released. I have enjoyed my many conversations with Marc over the years and recently discussed his new book with him by phone.

Marc will be speaking at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI on Monday, November 21 at 6:30 p.m. His talk will be free and open to the public. Seating is limited, so an RSVP is recommended. Click here to RSVP

(Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board of Marc Prensky’s organization, The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, and my laudatory comment appears on the jacket of his latest book.)


In your new book Education to Better Their World, what would you say is the core message—a profoundly transformative message—that you are promulgating for shaping education?

Marc: As our world changes rapidly, we are finding that the education that has worked for us in the past is no longer as effective as it may once have been. Our kids—and all of us—need something new.

Today’s kids are becoming empowered, both by technology and by society, to do things that kids could never do in the past. These kids represent a huge untapped group available to make the world a better place. The subtitle of my book is “Unleashing the Power of 21st-century Kids.”

The “academic” education we have offered our kids in the recent past—and still offer today to all, with its core subjects of math, English, science, and social studies (“the MESS”)—which was once useful, is no longer right for these empowered kids nor for the world in which they are growing up and will live.

Our current “academic” education is wrong for the future not because we haven’t added enough technology, or because we haven’t added enough so-called 21st century skills, or because we don’t offer it to everyone equally, or even because we haven’t tried hard to incrementally improve it.

It’s wrong for the future because it has—and we have—the wrong ends, or goals, in mind. Up until now, education has been about improving individuals. What education should be about in the future is improving the world—and having individuals improve in the process.

In addition, our current education is wrong because it is extremely narrow. In order to improve the world, kids require not just content and the “thinking” skills we now offer, but a far broader and more useful combination of effective thinking, effective action, effective relationships, and effective accomplishment skills. By making the core of our kids’ education real-world projects and accomplishment, and by having kids master a much broader set of underlying skills in the process, we can reunite our separate “thinking” and “accomplishment” traditions of education, in new and powerful ways for kids, ourselves, and the world.

We have started our strategic planning at Rocky Hill School by imagining what the most exciting school in the world would look like.

Marc: That is excellent. But it might be even more useful to imagine what the most exciting education in the world would look like, considering one’s “education” to be the processes and experiences one has on the way from childhood to adulthood. Those processes can be formal or informal or, as is usually the case, a combination, and may or may not involve a school at all (other than the proverbial “school of hard knocks”).

Because of the profound changes the world is going through, trying to image “the most exciting school in the world” at this juncture may be like trying to imagine what the most exciting gasoline-powered automobile in the world would look like at a time the world is moving away from gasoline power—and even car ownership—to new and better solutions for personal transportation. The question itself assumes an old context—i.e., “we have a school and we want to improve it.” But are “schools” necessary, or even wanted, in our kids’ future?

So a much more interesting question would be this: “What is the best and most exciting education any kid could receive, and every kid should receive, in the new global context that is quickly coming—and in many places already here? If we think of ourselves not in the “school” business but rather in the “education” business, with “education” defined as before, our answer might be something like this, which I am making this up as an example:

At our institution, young person, we provide an education that meets your needs as a person—not our needs or even your parents’. We have no fixed, or preconceived location, structure or program, but only a super-supportive network and environment and an overall perspective on how to help kids become the best, most effective and most world-improving adults they are capable of being—which we apply differently to each individual in our care. We see our job as empowering young people to continue to make themselves as successful as they can for the rest of their lives, in a rapidly changing and evolving environment.

We ask each of you, our temporary wards, to share with us your dreams—what you want to become—as well as your strengths, talents and passions, and we will design and conduct an individualized and team process to maximize the likelihood of your getting there (or to whatever place your dreams may change to). We are in the business of helping you, individually, through teamwork and accomplishment, become a good, effective and world-improving person in whatever area(s) for which you have true passion. It is our job to help you apply that passion, in positive ways, for your own good and for the world’s. You will leave our care with a résumé of real-world accomplishments in whatever area you have a true passion for—well on the road to becoming the person you want to be.

That, in my mind, is what a true “child-centered” educational institution would be, and I personally can’t imagine anything more exciting for a young person. Would the best organization to do this be a building or campus, with teachers and facilities, that all the kids go to every day? Or might it be some way of letting them roam free, individually or in teams, in their neighborhood or world accomplishing things (with some technological means to ensure their safety)? Might it consist, rather than of in-person classes, only of teams and cohorts from around the world organized somehow on the Internet, with “empowerers” and coaches located all over the world? Would it be putting kids together in teams not sorted by age, but sorted instead by passion, experience, aptitude and strengths? Would it be to still have curriculum, however “improved,” that is taught linearly in courses and classes—with or without technology—or, instead, to have a huge number of real-world projects available to kids, with the world’s information, knowledge and skills to accomplish those projects successfully available on-demand?

Opening up our thinking in this way is crucial, because if we don’t, imagining “the most exciting school” might be thought of only in the context of our current academic educational system. We need to be wary, lest the question unhelpfully collapse into only “How can we offer an academic education in the most exciting way—rather than “How can we offer each child an education that is most exciting to, and best suited to, and in the best way for, him or her?”

It is also important to remember that the various “customers” of education—society, parents, and the kids themselves—often have different agendas, and may define “exciting” in different ways. Right now, perhaps the most important questions we can ask are “What are the true ends of education for each of these groups? Can we agree on common ends?” The answer to these questions is, I believe, changing—in different ways, perhaps, for each of the groups. Is it possible to design an education—or a school—that is equally exciting to society, parents, and students at the same time, also bearing in mind that each of these groups is not homogeneous, but is made up of wildly varying individuals and factions?

Suppose, though, that we do still have schools. What would that “exciting” school look like in your mind’s eye if you were to walk into it?

Marc: Schools are not going away tomorrow. (For one thing, they are the way we assure our kids are safe while parents work.) I have a vision of schools shaped around students fully engaged in projects to improve the world. There may be advantages (in addition to safety and sharing costs) in bringing kids together in one place to work, in teams of different sizes, on projects—we need to focus on those. Our school, however, would need to be wired with the fastest and strongest Internet connections possible—because with technology there is far less need for the students on a team to be physically in the same place. And, in fact, we might prefer, for diversity’s sake, that they not be.

We will need working spaces of many sizes, that can be reconfigured quickly and easily as needed, to accommodate the changing flow of the work. There would be no classrooms as we know them today—the “classroom” is an anachronism that is no longer required and shouldn’t be taking up fixed amounts of space in the kids’ world.

The kids will not be organized into age-based cohorts; all teams will be multi-age, just as workplaces are, with roles chosen or assigned based on the skills, abilities, and development needs of kids (such as trying new roles, and getting better at familiar ones). Kids will interact in varying ways during a day, with and without adults—sometimes in pairs, groups, sometimes working as individuals, depending on their project’s needs at any given stage.

I would expect to walk in the door of such a school and see excited groups of kids in corners organizing and working on projects they were passionate about accomplishing in the best possible way—not just socializing, as I often see today. I’d expect to see kids who are so focused on what they are trying to accomplish that it bothers them to stop to eat. I’d expect to see kids in deep conversation with adults, staff, parents, outside experts, and advisers—conversations related to the work they both are doing, to who the kids are as people, and to the options kids might try that would be well-suited to their individual skills and personalities. I’d like to see kids developing, from an early age, deep self-understandings of who they are, what they are interested in, passionate about, and good at, then going through a process of connecting that understanding to projects, both in their local community and in the larger world. I’d want to see almost all the kids totally engaged in these processes. But whenever a kid goes off track, I’d expect that there are adults watching whose job it is to to say, “Okay, this isn’t working. Let’s try something different.” I’d expect to find any kid I talk to proud of what he or she was doing and accomplishing.

I believe this can happen, because if today’s newly empowered kids are given freedom to choose the ways in which they will work they will want to work together with others of similar interests and passions to make their world a better place.

Some may view this approach as going back to Dewey’s ideas of “learning by doing.” It actually goes beyond Dewey, because Dewey’s thinking was necessarily constrained by the technology of his times. Kids then were not empowered as they are—and are becoming—today. Kids then had none of the powerful tools in the pockets of today’s young people. A teacher told me recently that her fourth grade kids were very excited about an issue, and had started a petition. I replied that that is what kids in classes have done forever, 25 or so kids at a time. But today, those same 25 kids can, in a matter of days, connect that petition to millions of kids. One class of 25 kids could, potentially, collect a billion signatures by the end of the year. These are the kinds of goals our kids can now set, and the kind of scale they can be working at. We are in a very different place in what “doing” and “accomplishing” means these days for young people.

Dewey was asking a different question: How can we prepare millions of immigrant children for democracy?

Marc: An important piece that is different in our time versus Dewey’s time is that today we can ask not just “how can we prepare kids for democracy,” but, instead, “how can our kids do and experience democracy,” i.e., how can they actually build, at their age, with the tools now available to them, a more democratic world? And not just prepare for it, but have it, live it, be it, connect to it, see all its strengths and problems in action? If Dewey were alive today, I believe what he would be advocating would be hugely different. In fact, a great exercise for kids today would be to ask, “If Dewey—or McLuhan—were alive today, what would they think and do?”

You have an appendix in the book with frequently voiced concerns. You respond to the things that parents might bring up. For example, what about assessment and evaluation? Can you speak to that?

Marc: Assessment can be useful, but unfortunately, we far too often focus on assessment not in order to get better, but to “rank” our kids. Except in trivial cases, true ranking is impossible, and a huge waste of our time and resources—we really need only assess whether projects are successful, and how to make them more so, which is actually far easier. We should be focusing more on what are known as ipsative assessments, i.e. whether our kids are continually beating their personal bests at various skills and accomplishments.

An important difference for parents to understand, compared to when when they attended school, is that there are so many more people now in the world—I grew up in a world with two billion people; now there are more than 7 billion. And yet the numbers of places in many of our “best” schools have hardly expanded. So, the competition to attend these schools is hugely higher—it is a very different world in this respect. To get in, kids now have to differentiate themselves and invent new ways to fit into their changing world.

In the Kremlin (in Moscow) there is a fabulous jewel collection. You look in one display window and see piles of thousands of perfect diamonds of all sizes. But there are so many of them together, they seem all the same. Then you move to another display case and see the crown jewels. Out of all those diamonds only a very few—the absolute best—were picked for the crown or scepter—but other, colored stones were required as well. That’s how it is today. The kids striving to do well, and succeeding in academia are the diamonds in the piles. Most kids aren’t even there, but if your kid is, he or she is lost in a pile. Today, parents must encourage and help their kid be that special, colored stone—i.e., be unique and individual in ways that they personally want to and can improve the world, based on their talents, interests, and passions. Every kid—academic success story or not—needs to become a superstar at something that he or she truly cares about. As a parent, you need to know that your kid can no longer get into a top school with just grades, and that developing a passion, and learning to apply it, is the most important preparation for college—because higher education works infinitely better for those who already know what they want to study or do. Kids have to be working, from early on, almost entirely at things they are passionate about. As a parent, you need to help your kid demonstrate that he or she has a deep commitment to something that drives them to world-improving actions. Kids’ passions and interests may change, but it’s really important that we help them find their passions at a given time and apply them to accomplishing in ways that better the world—the process of doing so is what will make them succeed in life, and is something they must get started on as early as possible in K-12 education. This is both schools’ and parents’ job, in my opinion. A kid’s being just “well-rounded” isn’t enough anymore—it makes that kid, in this world, like those diamonds in the first window.

I’m wondering how broadly you would construe “world-improving.” This could obviously include kids’ work on how to mitigate Zika transmission, but could it be kids who want to perform in the arts?

Marc: Yes. It includes not just the arts, but most anything a kid is passionate about. The important point is that they get better both at doing their art (or whatever they love) and in sharing it with people, via performances, exhibitions, or in other ways, to better others’ lives. They could, for example, join a musical group that tours all of the senior places in their area to use music as a form of life-bettering therapy. I make a real distinction between achievement and accomplishment—achievement is something you do personally for yourself; accomplishment is something that you do for others. To become a great musician and never perform for others is not what I mean by either “world-improving” or “accomplishment”—it is only achievement. Our current school system is based on achievement, not accomplishment. But companies no longer hire people based on achievements; they hire people based on their accomplishments. They are looking, as it says on the Google website, for “people who can get things done.”

In your schema, where would a student fit who is only interested in research? Is there a place for such a student?

Marc: Of course there is—the world needs researchers. But we’d be better off with researchers who think of research not as something they do only for themselves, but as a contribution to the world. There needs to be a reason for why they are doing it, i.e., an “applied passion.” Their interest can stem initially from “I love finding out about things.” But as they are in a society, it is important that they also be doing the research for a purpose. They need to think “I’m doing this research I love and hopefully it is someday going to pay off for the world.” This is true of even the most “basic” research. The world needs people who find things out—it is part of helping make their world a better place. Hopefully, someday someone will apply their research to something immediately useful. Each of us needs to better our world in in a slightly different way, because we are all individuals.

I applaud you on a profoundly important and transformative book, which fits into the trajectory of your career. To close out, I ask that you either discuss the role of the teacher in your schema, or anything else that you would like to discuss.

Marc: Thank you. I will do both.

First, teachers are incredibly important; if kids only raised themselves with no extended, formative contact with adults that would not be a good situation, or lead to the best outcomes. Adults have experience, they can, and often do, help shape and influence kids in positive ways. Most of the people who have chosen to become teachers love kids and want to help them grow and flourish—so much so that they have chosen to do this as their profession.

But we do need to ask: “What’s the best way for teachers to help kids?” I believe it is not to teach them any “subject,” but to understand each kid’s strengths and passions and to get to know them as individuals. It is to encourage each student and help him or her go as far as they can in applying those attributes to the world and do something useful that will earn them a living. As one very successful actor says of his former teacher: “She showed me I could take my dreams as seriously as I wanted.” That’s what education, and teaching, ought to be about. Those people who love a subject but not kids, should be in research or something else rather than in teaching.

My 11-year-old son, who goes to a very highly rated public school, is given a program of things that he must learn about. He is bored in class he tells me, at least half the time. This is a common complaint, even in the finest private schools—one that is rarely, if ever listened to or taken seriously by adults. My son often asks me, “Why am I learning this?” and I sometimes say to him, “Let’s do it another way. Let’s find a problem that you would be interested in solving.” Last time he chose bike theft, which is prevalent in our community. After we identified that issue, he stayed up most of the night thinking about solutions, and insisted we had to talk about it in the morning, because he was still thinking about it. Later, he came back to me with ideas and diagrams, some of which are probably patent-worthy. That’s an example of education being for the kid, and not for the parents, or society (although we all benefit). We need to construct our education in a way that this sort of thing happens constantly, and leads kids to want to acquire, on their own, the kinds of knowledge and skills they need to solve these real problems.

As kids do these projects that passionately interest them, the teacher needs to act as a coach and encourager. The teacher has to focus not on teaching a pre-ordained curriculum to all, but on looking at each kid at work and figuring out how to help them do that work better while helping them acquire—in a way that that they see as useful, and not demotivating—each of the underlying skills that we have developed as humans, and that we think our kids should have. I list ways of doing this in my book. As I write there, “The amount of ‘content’ that everyone truly needs is surprisingly small and high-level. It probably includes little more than a high-level knowledge of the layout of the world and of its diversity, the major arcs of human history, the major tenets of science, and some knowledge of how we govern ourselves. All the rest is detail, useful only to some. On the other hand, Effective Thinking, Effective Action, Effective Relationships, and Effective Accomplishment are important to all stu­dents at every grade level. It is crucial for an effective education that every student focus on becoming as good as they possibly can at each of these overarching skills.”

The final thing I’d add is that, as I read your blog—which I am glad you are writing and am proud to be included in—and as I look at what people are doing in the world of education reform, I would encourage you, and others, to go even further afield from what we currently do, and not just try to incrementally improve our current practices. I encourage you to ask all the people you know who think of themselves as being on the “future edge” of education “How can we escape—without losing much that is of true value—from the ‘academic’ paradigm of education that our schools have become trapped in? How can we move away from seeing ‘learning’ as synonymous with ‘education’? How can we move toward seeing it, rather, as one means to the real goal of education, which is creating a better world?”

I would encourage you and others to be asking questions like these: What would education (i.e., the process and experiences that make kids into the best, most effective and most world-improving adults) look like if we ignored all tradition and started from scratch? Are schools and classrooms necessary any longer for the best education, or are they just historical constraints that we put on ourselves and are thinking that hold our kids back? Given that our kids are so much more empowered than in the past and are so much more capable of connecting and working together around the globe—and quickly becoming more so—how can we reconceive what education means in the world?

I believe this kind of thinking is what is now beginning, in pockets, by individual kids and adults, by forward-thinking schools and administrators, and even by some whole countries, around the globe. That thinking, and the actions it is leading to, is what Education to Better Their World is about. It describes an emerging “vision of education” to help us escape from the old “academic” paradigm of schools, and move to the “better their world” paradigm. It describes the kinds of changes and investments that will, eventually, make us all better at moving our kids from childhood into adulthood in their new and different context and world—with our kids very much included and involved in reinventing this process.


Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.

A Conversation with Hakan Satiroglu

Hakan Satiroglu

Hakan Satiroglu

Hakan Satiroglu is a serial education technology entrepreneur and one of the most peripatetic and capacious thinkers I know. Born in Turkey, Hakan graduated from Boston University before launching a series of start-ups in the EdTech sector. His successful ventures have included Xplana Learning, TeachersConnect, and Mindbridge Partners, and he is a founding principal of LearnLaunch, an EdTech incubator and accelerator in Boston. (Full disclosure: I am a Senior Advisor at LearnLaunch.)

I caught up with Hakan by phone one afternoon while the buzz of the start-ups incubating in LearnLaunch’s shared space was clearly audible in the background.


What do you see as the most important trends in EdTech today?

Hakan:  I think the three key areas with the most important development today are in authentic assessment, language learning, and gaming.

Starting backwards with gaming, we’re seeing more and more how educational games can help students learn, helping them develop much more creative ways to create and problem solve while having fun.

I also think language learning is often overlooked when considering top EdTech applications, but language learning is a worldwide need, particularly for people who want to play on the global stage, for which the acquisition of English is a necessity. It also has to be considered from a resource perspective: I was talking with a friend in Turkey who was saying that so many people there want to learn English, but there are not enough resources for them to do so. How do we make that more accessible?

I also think in the US we should graduate with fluency in a foreign language. After English, the three most important languages I find most necessary in today’s world are Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic.

Also, as workforce training and skill-based learning become more important to educational outcomes, assessing people’s skills takes more center stage. One of LearnLaunch’s portfolio companies, Authess, founded by Paul Crockett formerly of Pearson and Chris Kaiser of MIT, is a great example of this.  We need to be able to identify, measure, quantify, and track in real time the skills we are hoping to impart for people to be successful in today’s world – and do it with a scalable model.

What do you consider the key skills we need to be assessing?

Hakan: Entrepreneurial skills – especially critical thinking, how to be curious, how to generate your own resources, problem-solving. As an entrepreneur, if you lack these skills, you’ll quickly find yourself in a very difficult situation. Can we teach that? How do we help students learn to tackle complex problems, break them down, and then be able to explain it clearly to others?

Even complex societal issues. Understanding how societies are managed. Unfortunately, politics is an ugly term today, but it is really about organizational management on a large scale. Helping students to see issues like Syria or other crises as a large management issue. No part of our educational system from elementary school through college teaches how to assess and hold management responsible.

What do you see as the most exciting and the most concerning trends in American education today?

Hakan: The most exciting is the shift toward more conversation about skill-based learning.  A key reason to get an education is to be able to achieve career success, but our traditional offerings no longer give us what we need to have a competitive workforce.  Shifting the paradigm toward entrepreneurial skills is a necessary and exciting development.

Scariest for me is how much a quality education costs.  It’s pretty outrageous.  I don’t know if there is a reasonable justification for why the price tag keeps going up at this rate, especially when many are not preparing people to succeed. There will be much more learning taking place outside of the traditional educational models.

Another area where we need more work is how to give our kids and young adults a global perspective so they can grow up into adulthood with the knowledge of what’s happening all around us. We can refer to it as raising Global Citizens, who can better grasp our role and responsibilities around the world. I am not sure how much of this is happening across a broad range today in our educational system.

We also need to increase our focus and support for our teachers, especially in the pre K-12 area. Our teachers are our future, and their education, financial and social support, their ongoing connectivity is extremely important. The more we invest in our teachers and their well being, the more impact we are going to see in the overall wellness of our education. This area is a big passion of mine and I’m working hard to make it happen.

I am a firm believer in harnessing the collective power of the best minds, of the people who are thinking most deeply and care most deeply about these issues, so that we can treat seemingly intractable problems as susceptible to analysis and resolution – through technology and networking to get enough people who can think philosophically about these issues, free from political agendas, to push the boulder up the hill. I’m increasingly interested in how we create mechanisms for these conversations, provide structure around them, so that we can simplify the challenges down to a level that a fifth-grader can understand, and turn the discussion toward concrete approaches that are scalable.

Having lived much of your life in both Turkey and the United States, what do you see as the key differences in educational approaches?

Hakan: Well, there are some superficial differences, certainly. In America, there is more complexity because of local, state and city control over education, whereas in Turkey, education is more centrally managed. But I really think too much emphasis is placed on differences around the globe, whereas there are far more similarities no matter where you go; support for teachers who are trying to innovate, the need for more collaborative school environments.

The same elements and skill sets are applicable to all children everywhere in the world, yet our respective approaches are very disconnected. What would it look like if educators bridged the apparent gaps to a more global conversation about these topics? Can educators play a central role in bridging the gaps between the United States and Mexico, for instance, by focusing on the fact that all of the students in both countries need the exact same set of skills to succeed today? This way we can create more collaboration among neighboring countries – then regions and eventually the entire world.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

An Educational Theory of Everyone

Almost six years ago, I used the opportunity afforded by a Klingenstein Fellowship at Columbia University to write a research paper on two promising educational research areas and how they might fruitfully be integrated. Specifically, I looked at the work on understanding and supporting students with diagnosed Learning Differences (LDs) and the emergent work by Howard Gardner and others on learning styles in the general population. The LD research at that time was at a more mature level, utilizing recently available tools such as fMRI technology to understand brain activity in students with LDs and supported by a substantial body of empirical work on pedagogical interventions. This LD literature was focused on a low percentage of students (diagnosed at the time as having a medical “pathology”), and the interventions advocated were labor-intensive, requiring very low student-teacher ratios.

By contrast, the literature about learning styles in the general population was, at the time, still nascent and relatively undeveloped, and it, obviously, covered a much broader range of the population.

My thesis was that these were actually only apparently two distinct fields. In other words, I argued that there are as many learning styles as there are learners, that what appeared to be a distinct subset of students with identified LDs was actually a portion of a continuous spectrum along which was a steady distribution of learning styles that encompassed every person on the planet. The two apparently disparate fields were actually just the proverbial blind men identifying different parts of the same elephant.

In the intervening years, this thesis has become an emerging consensus in education, and, so, I stand by my original proposition that the fields be merged into a single educational “Theory of Everyone” (or “T of E,” to borrow shamelessly from the famous holy grail of physics, the “Theory of Everything”).

My educational Theory of Everyone goes something like this:

  1. Every single person learns in a unique manner. No two people learn precisely alike.
  2. A plot diagram of the learning styles of the entire population would look like a smoothly continuous distribution along a spectrum (with, perhaps, some clustering around certain cognitive patterns that we can ignore for our purposes here).
  3. The intensive work that has been done on students with diagnosed LDs is really just work focused on learners at one end of this continuous spectrum, and many of the insights and pedagogies developed for intensive intervention on behalf of those relatively few students could effectively be scaled to support all students’ learning styles in profound ways.

The first point de-pathologizes students with LD diagnoses.

The latter point is consonant with a central dynamic of 21st-century service delivery. We are in the process of rapidly concierging and individualizing every service from online shopping to DNA-specific medicine. Isn’t it time we did so for education, as well?

There are currently many attempts underway to personalize learning in American classrooms; I have seen most of them and have concluded that they are either insufficient in their theoretical underpinnings (which, I suggest, require a comprehensive T of E) or that they tend to focus too much on self-pacing rather than individualized content delivery to concierge each student’s unique learning style. We are still in need of a better approach.

In a future blog post, I shall proffer a proposal that might help us to achieve a true Theory of Everyone teaching practice, individualized to every student, for all classrooms.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

American Education and the Economy

American education has served the U.S. economy remarkably well over the past century. Despite undeniable and even glaring flaws, our educational system has done an impressive job of helping America’s workforce stay consistently competitive.

While much has been written and soliloquied about American financial decline, statistics indicate a happier story of relatively steady competitiveness over the past 65 years. In 1950, for instance, Americans commanded 40% ($2 trillion) of global nominal GDP ($5 trillion). At the time, the U.S. population (152 million) was about 6% of world population (2.5 billion). The U.S. economy has grown since from $2 trillion in 1950 to $18 trillion in 2016, and, while it is true that our commanding percentage share of global GDP declined to 29% in 2016, it is germane to bear in mind that our portion of world population declined commensurately over the same period, to 4.5% of global population.

In other words, the global population grew faster than in the U.S. from 1950 to 2016 (which is why American GDP declined as an overall percent of the world), but our per capita command of global GDP remained remarkably consistent over that same period.

This is particularly striking because the 1950s were years during which America, spared home-front battlegrounds and economically strengthened by war production, vastly outpaced global competitors in Europe and Asia whose economies were either still developing or were still in the process of recovery from World War II.

To a generation within living memory of the Great Depression followed by wartime austerities and sacrifice, the 1950s were an unprecedented Golden Age of prosperity. For America’s per capita command of world resources to continue on par with this historically anomalous period of prosperity is almost unprecedented in the annals of nations.

It is nonetheless the case that this has also transpired during a period of extraordinarily rapid and fundamental economic and workforce transformation. Critically for education, while American GDP has expanded commensurate with its population for the past half century, it has done so predominantly in a binary fashion: wealth has aggregated toward highly skilled professionals in the knowledge and innovation sectors, while there has been a concomitant growth in low-skilled service sector jobs that are increasingly insecure and low-paid at the bottom tiers. The manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of mid-century working-class hopes and aspirations have increasingly slipped away; American workers can never again expect millions of old-economy manufacturing jobs that command relatively high pay (by global comparatives) and lifetime security in an affluent lifestyle (again, by global comparatives) when they now compete directly with billions of workers who are eager for those same jobs at much lower scales of remuneration.

lou-gerstner

Lou Gerstner (Image from Stanford University Libraries)

All of this, of course, has been recognized by educational pundits for several decades, but the response has been historically misinformed and fundamentally misplaced. As two salient examples, when a presidential commission published its report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” in 1983, and when the CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner, convened a national summit on education in 1996, the business and political leaders who dominated this discourse (and several decades of education policy in their wake) agreed to a doubling-down on the culture of academic content, standards, and testing. While unquestionably well-intentioned, this missed the mark, only intensifying the disconnect between education practice and what students needed.

It is reasonable to assume that few, if any, of these leaders understood the full historical context of their deliberations. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a fierce debate raged among educators as to what was the best education to provide the burgeoning American population, particularly children of the vast numbers of immigrant factory operatives. One camp advocated a class differentiation in schools, providing college preparatory academic studies for middle- and upper-class students while giving vocational-technical training for working-class children. The opposing—and, ultimately, victorious—camp advocated traditional college-track academic preparation for all children; this group, dominated by Progressive education thinkers such as John Dewey, believed that their approach was more democratic, allowing every child, regardless of background, a fighting chance for a place in the knowledge/professional sectors. This worked well enough for the economy and technologies of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries.

It was the Progressive system of the common school that Gerstner and others took as axiomatic at the end of the 20th century, and their response was to place ever-more emphasis on the skills prescribed by a system tailored for a prior era: memorization, repetition, testing.

The fact, however, is that the new economic realities described above make it impossible for American workers to continue to compete toe-to-toe with nations who drill their students in the same rote learning but are willing to work longer and harder for less pay. American workers can only hope to compete by blazing a fresh path in education that universally teaches the skills of a 21st-century innovation economy to all children.

I find it interesting and heartening that, unlike the two-camps debates of the last century, there is an emerging consensus among educational thought leaders that the skills needed by all students today, regardless of future career path, are precisely the same: in order to be competitive, blue-collar workers need just as much as white-collar workers to exhibit innovation, grit, creativity, adaptability, leadership, teamwork, and effective communication.

America might never again be the global hegemon in, say, steel production, but our workers, if trained well in this universal set of new skills, can maintain a competitive advantage in such emergent industries as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and others that are only opaquely visible on the horizon.

One might well ask: If this is the case, why are so few schools implementing these at their programmatic core, in under-resourced public schools as readily as in the elite private schools?

But that is a topic for a future blog post.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

A Conversation with Greg Toppo

Greg Toppo is the national education and demographics reporter for USA Today. He has been a Fellow at Columbia University’s Journalism School and is the author of “The Game Believes in You.”

Greg will speak at Rocky Hill School on Thursday, December 8 in the Flynn Academic Center. This event is free and open to the public. Click here to reserve your seat.


Can you, for those who have not read your book, give us a synopsis of what your key takeaways are?

Greg Toppo

Greg Toppo

Greg: I wrote the book because I was curious about how young people’s relationships with media were changing. I came up to your school [Cushing Academy, about which Greg wrote in USA Today] to find out how, back then, everyone was fretting about digital distraction and kids getting their own phones, but we don’t talk about that much anymore. Once I started going down this road, I saw two opposite things happening: The kind of media that people were most freaked out about was video games. But some people were also excited about the way games could contribute to education. A lot of scholarship had been done by people like Jim Gee writing about the possibilities of games and learning. They seemed to be saying, ‘If only people would look at this more closely, interesting things will happen.’ I wondered if someone had already looked at this more closely. Are there teachers exploring the use of games, or developing games, and how do I find them? I started asking around and found that not only were there people doing this but there were more people than I could ever talk to. This world was unfolding, almost invisibly, before us. I started visiting people, talking to game developers. Almost like shooting fish in a barrel, there were so many people working on this that I couldn’t get to them all. After a year of meeting people, I picked the ones I liked best and who, to me, were most representative of the movement.

It is a superb book.  Has it had the impact you had hoped?

Greg: The people who find it really love it. I try not to be a cheerleader as much as I try to ask why this particular engine works well. What are the underlying principles? Why are games so appealing? Why are teachers so interested in this? The question is no longer an “if” question, it is a “how” question. Each subtitle of the chapters in the book looks at “how” people are getting things done.

The question is not whether this is going to emerge but what is best practice?

Greg: Exactly. As for the impact, I think it is still early. I don’t think I’m starting a new way of thinking, but when I talk to people one on one, the ideas resonate with their lives. So many people have kids who are already gamers. Parents are starting to change how they talk, from “these kids are really into gaming” to “these kids are really into learning.”  Rarely do people dismiss the field as a whole anymore.

This is a rapidly expanding field. What have you seen since the book came out? What is new since you wrote the book?

Greg: Some of the phenomena I describe in the book that were breathtaking at the time are now ordinary. Pokemon Go—two or three years ago, you would have had to work really hard to describe what it was, but people just get it now. They understand that something that looks like a useless scavenger hunt can actually bring people together and get them out of the house. It is getting people with PTSD to leave the house for the first time. It is revitalizing museums, because people are there to find these creatures. Organizations are inviting these people in. Organizations may have been very wary about this a few years ago. At the same time, there is a very big, scary debate going on now: When I talk to parent groups, they want to talk about “screen addiction.” We still are using words like “addiction” and it’s troubling.

Do you share any of these concerns? Or is it a misplaced analysis?

Greg: When we use words like “addiction,” it is not to start a conversation, but to stop it, to end any doubt about what is happening in our kids’ lives and their minds. But I say that if you are concerned, let’s try to find out more about what is going on. There is a school psychologist in Australia who has a very smart way of thinking about this. Jocelyn Brewer has a TED talk about Digital Nutrition that you should watch—one of the things she likes to say is that screens (iPads, phones, computers) are not drugs; they are syringes. They are the thing through which you get the drug. So let’s talk about what you are putting in the syringe. People always ask, what do you think about “screen time”? But if we were talking about food, we wouldn’t be talking about “plate time,” we would be talking about what is on the plate. That is a more constructive way to think about it. We rarely talk about being addicted to food, we talk about how much we like it, and perhaps how we should eat more or less of certain foods.

I like that image, that technology is a delivery vehicle. The technology has rendered ubiquitously accessible the entirety of human culture.

Greg: Yes. People also ask, “Shouldn’t kids be out playing, or having down time?” Absolutely. To use another food analogy, at no time in my life has food been better than it is now. Think about the restaurants we have access to now. The choice that we have is vastly better than what we’ve ever had. We didn’t have food trucks when I was a kid. The way to respond, even if you’re overwhelmed, is not to say, “Oh, my god, I am overwhelmed”; the thing to do is to pick and choose the things you like, consume them in moderation and teach your kids to do the same.

It’s harder now for the people who aren’t the very top classical musicians in the world to make a living, because the average consumer has direct access to the top musicians on YouTube and other venues. But the positive flip side of that is precisely that even someone in the most marginalized place on the planet can have ready access to the greatest performances. 

Greg: It is not without cost. But “addiction” is the wrong way to think about it.

I started the book assuming there is a connection between gaming violence and aggressive behavior, but you make a very good argument that there is no connection. 

Greg: Going into the project, I did not think I would be paying any attention to that. Grand Theft Auto and other violent games, you can make a strong case that they do not belong in schools. But when I spoke to parents, they would hear the term “video game” and say that their children could not stop playing games like Call of Duty. They would say, “I’m afraid he is going to become violent, what should I do?” These weren’t parents who were uninvolved in their children’s’ lives, yet in this way they felt not only out of the loop but out of control; they didn’t have any control over their kids’ consumption of these games. I thought: If the book is for parents and teachers, I need to address this. And the research surprised me. When I read the Connecticut State Police report about Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Sandy Hook shooter, I thought, “People need to read about this.” Police looked into his social habits and found that he had played one video game obsessively, every day, for 10 years. When I give a talk on this topic, I ask people if they think they can name the game, and they very rarely can.

You talk about the role of playfulness and creativity in learning – and how important that is in the 21st century, how you see gaming in a central role as an educative tool. 

Greg: I am definitely not a play scholar.  I don’t have a very deep understanding of what play does psychologically. But from the research and thinking that I have done, I feel like the importance of playfulness is that it changes the focus of what we are doing, changes it from a high-stakes endeavor to one where failure is O.K. Trying lots of approaches is O.K. What can you bring to this endeavor? One of my favorite concepts is “flow state,” which is what happens when your abilities perfectly match with the task at hand. People understand that concept and can transport themselves to a time and place where they were in that state. We rarely think about this in schools. Teachers say, “We have a certain amount of time to get this task done, and I don’t care about your state of mind.” Researchers have discovered the importance of being in the zone, of making the task match the skills, of making school work not too easy, not too hard. Dan Willingham from UVA, this is one of his big ideas. Adults forget that, for young people, doing the task is not optional. If The New York Times crossword puzzle is too hard, I can put it down and walk away. But a student in school has stakes attached to completing each task, so there is a real responsibility to make the tasks match the skill. Just to be clear: Flow is not about making everything easy; it is about matching a task to a skill that you have worked very hard developing.

There is a lot of conversation around Angela Duckworth’s book on Grit. A lot of grit is required to get to the next level of a video game. 

Greg: Even adults experience this. I recommended a game to a colleague the other day and he later told me he hadn’t gotten anything done for days, because he was trying to level up. Video games are grit machines.

Are there schools out there that are doing this in the most promising ways? In terms of the role of gaming in education, is it best leveraged educationally by a school that just does gaming or in a blended learning environment?

Greg: I’m very excited about Quest to Learn in New York. They just finished their 7th year. They started with a group of 6th  graders and just graduated the first group last spring. If you had just walked in with no introduction to it, you would see a very well-designed PBL school. Interesting but not out of the ordinary. Lots of schools do PBL. One of the exciting things was that they had brought a little gaming think tank into the building, and its task for the first several years was to talk to the teachers and ask, “What are you teaching and how can we find a game that teaches this better, or how can we develop one?” They had a few really remarkable little games, and pieces of games. There was one racing game where you had to get from point a to point b faster than your opponent on a peg board. You quickly learn that you move faster when you move on the diagonal between two holes, rather than just up-and-down and side-to-side. This was teaching the Pythagorean theorem with no prior introduction to the topic. The students were not memorizing it, they were generating it. Then, when the teacher says, “A squared plus B squared equals C squared,” it means something.

The students were independently discovering the Pythagorean theorem. 

Greg: Exactly.

Would you recommend that schools redo their curricula to teach everything, or most everything, through games?

Greg: No. Schools leveraging the power of games as the only approach, I would frown on that. There is no reason to make games the only thing you do. They should be used to serve the things you need to do. If a game is not the best tool, then use something else. If a cheese grater is a better tool, use the cheese grater.

So you’re not hoping that gaming will be the “next big thing”?

Greg: No. I actually hope gaming is not the “next big thing,” because those always crash and burn. I hope it is the “next small thing,” where it develops in a natural way. I hope that it is not on the cover of a magazine somewhere. And since the book came out, I have to say that smart people have been thinking about this in very different ways than I had imagined. Young developers at Breakout EDU took the concept of escape rooms, where you get together with your friends and you have an hour to get out of a room by following the clues in the room. They are big, embodied, live-action puzzles and they are difficult; the success rate on a lot of them is 30%. But people are not intimidated by the fact that they have failed. They keep trying, even though they have paid good money to fail. A teacher took his class to one, and the kids loved it. The kids were working together, thinking critically, focused on the goal, and the teacher thought, “How can I get this into the school building?” He decided to invert the whole thing. “Let’s try to get into a box and use all the same tools we did in order to get out of the room.” So you can purchase this thing; it is a wooden box that is locked six ways to Sunday and you have to figure out how to crack all of these locks. Teachers are developing curriculum around the box. They say, “Learning about this concept helps you solve this puzzle to get into the box.” And they have been really democratizing this. Breakout EDU realized the potential to make this a big company, but they also realized that the market is teachers. So they said, “You can buy it for $99, but if you can’t afford that, here is the list of ingredients to make it yourself, with supplies from Home Depot or your local hardware store.” Teachers have written their own lesson plans and posted them online for free. It is all open source. Breakout EDU allows the teachers to sell their lesson plans, but all of the teachers have chosen to give them away for free.

Is there anything else you would like to add and what are you working on these days?

Greg: I’m talking to people about the book. I did a book group with a bunch of moms in Annapolis, Maryland. I brought my iPad and a projector, and we played a couple of games with the group and their kids. That was great fun, and it proved a key point I wanted to make with the book: The kids were having fun doing math and solving puzzles together, in a social setting. I want to get people to think and have different conversations around this topic. When it comes to gaming, digital media, we think we know what we are talking about, but my feeling is that, as parents, we almost always come to it from a sense of moral panic. If there is anything I want to get across to people, it is that you have to identify that and understand it. Nick Yee at Stanford says we should close our eyes and imagine a game played in an alternate world, a piece of real estate that is set aside for just this purpose—it has its own rules and fierce competition, and people get together once a week to compete; of course, this is football. But when something goes wrong, someone gets hurt or someone dies, we don’t turn to the moral panic conversation, we try to figure out what happened and why. We don’t say, “Oh, everyone is addicted to football!” That is a shift we need to make.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI